This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.
If you read the massive oral history of televised Star Trek music earlier this week, you might have noticed a few key things were omitted. That was on purpose.
The old cliché is often true: Music is another character on screen. Even though the music wasn't supposed to overpower the story, especially in the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, many of the most memorable episodes linger in our memories because of the music. It broke the mold in some way. Somehow, the music wasn't "Star Trek" — it threw us off guard in the best way.
The jazz club and trombone solos of The Next Generation's "11001001"; The James Bond-inspired score (and wah-wah trumpets) of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Our Man Bashir" or, really, any episode with Jimmy Darren as Vic Fontaine on DS9, but especially "Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang," which featured a duet with Avery Brooks.
And then, of course, there's Jay Chattaway's haunting Ressikan flute solo from "The Inner Light," an episode from Season 5 of The Next Generation that is a reliable mainstay of Top 10 lists across the board. (Listen to my full conversation with Chattaway here.)
Aside from the Alexander Courage and Jerry Goldsmith themes, it just might be the most recognizable and popular piece of music in all of Trek. And Chattaway knows it.
"That piece remains the most requested piece of music from the Star Trek library," Chattaway told SYFY WIRE. "People use it at weddings, funerals, graduations... everything."
Though it's often referred to as a flute (I just did it above), the instrument is actually a pennywhistle. Why? Patrick Stewart's face, of course.
"The reason it was a pennywhistle is not because of the sound of it. It was the look of it," Chattaway said. "If you play a flute or a violin or an accordion, it would be in your face. And when you try to shoot a close-up of an actor, you want to see his face. The pennywhistle is a vertical instrument. Yes, he has to blow into it, but his face is still very visible. So we brought in all different kinds of instruments for Peter Lauritson, who was the director and who did a brilliant job of directing that show. And that's what we came upon."
Stewart might be one of the best actors of his generation, and in the world of Star Trek, Captain Picard can do no wrong, but that wasn't actually Stewart playing the pennywhistle for the episode. Sorry to spoil the illusion.
Chattaway explains, "The one he 'played' in the show was not actually playable. It was an inexpensive, three-dollar instrument we used, but it was all doctored up by the set designers. Patrick did actually learn how to play the instrument, but that wasn't him playing in the episode. It was actually Brice Martin who was one of our top studio players."
For a tune that had such an incredible impact not only on that particular episode and character but also on the entire Star Trek fandom, it was remarkably easy to write.
"On that episode, I had to prerecord that piece because they had to shoot the scenes to it. So, in all things Star Trek, you have to have an alternate. You can't just say, 'OK, here's the tune,'" Chattaway said. "So I read that script and wrote that tune right away. It took maybe 10 minutes. Maybe.
"But then I thought, 'Okay, now I have to write an alternate. And I have to make sure the alternate is much worse than the one I really like.' And I labored over it. It took me like two days to write the alternate. And it wasn't bad. In fact, they used it in the show as one of the mating dances. But I was so afraid when they listened to both of them. Thankfully, they picked the right one. And it became a classic."
And that's putting it mildly. The episode is consistently named among the very best episodes of Star Trek (not just TNG) ever produced. Stewart has said it was the greatest acting challenge he had in seven years on the show, and he's also on record as saying it's his favorite episode. The episode won the 1993 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and was nominated for an Emmy Award.
"The Inner Light" has withstood the test of time because it was truly firing on all cylinders. The Next Generation was in its absolute prime during the fifth season, and the episode reflects that. Stewart's acting was among the very best of his career. Morgan Gendel's script was nearly perfect in every way. Peter Lauritson's direction was spot-on brilliant.
And Chattaway's score continues to guarantee that the story remains with viewers long after the credits roll.
"The really cool thing about the episode," Chattaway recalls, "other than the writing and all that, is — you probably notice that in almost every show, when you get to the end of the show, you go to the Enterprise zooming through space, and there's big orchestral music. In this case, I said, 'You know, we can't do that. The flute has been lost for a millennium or something like that, and he's in his room playing it. Why don't you just let him play it out over space?'
"They said, 'Oh no, we can’t do that. We'll get killed if we do that.'
"But I said, 'Just try it.' I had to write an outside-the-ship ending for the show anyway, but finally they bought the idea of just going out with the pennywhistle. And it got rave reviews. I think it would've been so wrong to go out with a big orchestral flourish. That's not what that show was about."
Indeed. As brilliant an episode as it is, it's that ending that's so powerful and lingers long after the episode is over.
Unlike most music in Star Trek, that tune got a second life on screen. It reappeared in Season 6's "Lessons" and, unsurprisingly, was also the emotional heart of that episode. (Picard's flute also popped up from time to time, notably in "A Fistful of Datas" and the feature film Nemesis.)
In the years since Chattaway has developed the tune into an orchestral suite that's been performed around the world.
And if you'll allow a bit of editorializing at this point, let me go on record as saying that orchestral suite is one my favorite pieces of music, full stop. Not just among Star Trek music, not just among soundtracks or scores. It blows my mind every time I hear it, and it needs to be in everyone's life.
So please, let it bring light and joy to yours...